FA planning ahead for prosperous future

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The Independent Online

When Kevin Keegan watches the first of a busy five-day programme of Premiership matches on Saturday, prior to naming a squad next Thursday for the friendly against France on 2 September, a clutch of other Football Association coaches will be heading away from the madding crowds, towards the windswept touchlines of Carrington, London Colney and Bodymoor Heath.

When Kevin Keegan watches the first of a busy five-day programme of Premiership matches on Saturday, prior to naming a squad next Thursday for the friendly against France on 2 September, a clutch of other Football Association coaches will be heading away from the madding crowds, towards the windswept touchlines of Carrington, London Colney and Bodymoor Heath.

For, while the England coach is building towards the 2002 World Cup, the FA's technical department is looking further ahead, to 2006 and beyond. The training grounds of clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Aston Villa are where they will hope to find, in their Academy teams, the players who will form the basis of successful England sides.

Two years ago, after lengthy study of the fundamentals behind successful foreign models, Howard Wilkinson, the FA technical director, instigated a programme designed to improve England's long-term results.

Wilkinson and his coaches formulated a series of principles which, he was pleased to reveal yesterday, were largely confirmed by the European Championship.

The FA's intention was to identify annually a core group of talented young players and give them playing and tournament experience as a squad from the age of 14 onwards. The third such intake, the Under-15 side, will begin playing in October. Unlike in the past, when each age-group team was run as a separate fiefdom, especially the Schools' Under-15 side, this will be the start of a continuous path to the Under-21 XI, with each team being taught to use a flexible 4-3-3 system.

The yearly core group is supplemented by late developers who are given regular exposure at Under-18 and Under-21 level to enable them to catch up internationally. Thus, by the time the best of the squad reach the senior team, they should be equipped for the international game.

The four semi-finalists at Euro 2000, added Wilkinson, all came from backgrounds which put a premium on consistent selection and strategy. This was particularly so with the French, who were based on Gérard Houllier's youth squad from the late 1980s, and the Portuguese 'golden generation'.

But even Italy, who had been through three coaches and scatter-gun team selection at senior level over the last four years, had an identifiable thread at other levels - the striker Francesco Totti, for instance, was capped at Under-16, Under-18 and Under-21 level.

By 2006, new recruits will be blended with the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. With the World Cup in northern Europe (Germany) both the squad, and location, said Wilkinson, should be "ripe" for success.

A key part of the "script" is to teach tempo control - "playing the ball out from the back, controlling possession, counter-attacking, pressing and withdrawing pressure."

These are all elements which appeared to be absent from England's game during the European Championship. Wilkinson, while not prepared to comment on England's performances, did add: "We recognise that this information was not being given to young players 10-15 years ago and Kevin has that hump to get over."

In a further counterpoint to the summer of shame, young players are also being encouraged, as far as realistically possible, to conduct themselves "professionally" off the pitch. With the last Under-21 side not only failing to make the last four in the European Under-21 Championship, but also featuring several players who have fallen foul of the law or committed lesser indiscretions, it is clear that patience remains the name of the England glory game.

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